The Poem That Changed His Life

Emily Dickinson, at Home in Her ‘Full-Color Life’ (Image: Richard Baer, The New York Review of Books) By Laura Zuckerman The first time William Stafford read a poem by Emily Dickinson he was eight,…

The Poem That Changed His Life

Emily Dickinson, at Home in Her ‘Full-Color Life’ (Image: Richard Baer, The New York Review of Books)

By Laura Zuckerman

The first time William Stafford read a poem by Emily Dickinson he was eight, on a field trip to a local bookstore. The poem, which is a call to write about your life in any style you like, is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” and its meaning to William and a dozen other children who had attended his class. It took on a peculiar significance. The book was called Hints on Poetry. The children had to go on a field trip to an actual bookstore filled with poems by different people. When William read this poem, the idea that it could be a real poem was still a possibility. It had been a real poem the previous day, in his classroom, and another time, in a classroom he didn’t attend. Here, it was a real poem, and the poems he had read before were fictional not real. He thought: I’m reading poetry in my class! This idea of poetry had changed. It was alive in a way he had never known before.

The poem, the idea of poetry, what she had been about to do all along – Dickinson’s life had suddenly become vibrant and exciting, in William’s eyes, and she had a way of looking at her life, with all its failures and mistakes, that transformed ordinary experiences into something that mattered. She had a way of looking at her life that was a little bit like those people who have a very clear and well-grounded sense of purpose that they can look at everything they do with the same detached wonder, without the slightest element of regret. That was what it meant for Dickinson to live her life fully-colored, fully-colored, in her full-color life.

William knew that Dickinson was a big celebrity, and that she was famous for being a poet, not for being a painter, although she painted a few paintings. He knew even less about her poetry than he knew about her paintings. But Dickinson’s life – her life as she was living it, to the best of her ability, in the time she was living it – had suddenly become a

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